In the Hall, Tyrel faced his father, Madoc half a step behind him to his left. Everyone else currently in Dunnval, including some of the thralls who could find excuses to do so, had arranged to be present, witnesses to the beginning of the Rite.
“Tyrel,” Taber said. “Are you prepared?”
Tyrel nodded. “I am.”
“You have until the third dawn from now to return with incontestable evidence of having spent the night in Banvard and proven yourself to those who remain there. If you succeed, you will be greeted as heir to the title and rights and responsibilities of Chief of Dunnval. If you fail but live to return, both you and your shieldmate will have until the following dawn to leave Dunnval forever. Do you understand?”
Do I have a choice? Tyrel thought dryly. “I understand.”
“You may take weapons and food for the trail, nothing else.” He gestured, and a thrall hastened forward, a leather pack in each hand. Kaveri’s striped hair was instantly recognizable, but she wore the belted open-sided tunic of a common thrall, and kitchen stains marked not only it but her golden skin. It wasn’t unheard of for her to pack for him, but she’d clearly been in the kitchen longer than it took to put together three days of food; what was she doing?
Careful not to react to her, Tyrel took one pack, Madoc the other.
“Follow the road north, past the ford,” Taber said. “Where the road branches, turn to the left. Good fortune go with you.”
Only moments later, the palisade gates were closing behind them, and the bar dropped into place with a final thud.
“And off we go,” Tyrel sighed, settling his pack more comfortably and starting towards the north. “This is a stupid custom. Shouldn’t it matter more whether the people I’d be leading approve of me than the ghosts of the one and only hill fort to fall to an enemy?”
Madoc shrugged. “Customs don’t have to make sense, they just are. It’s your own fault for being the Chief’s first legitimate son. If you were Vester’s son, we wouldn’t be out here.”
“As if you’d be shieldmate to Vester’s son. Once we’re out of sight of the fort, I want to take a look through these packs and see what Kaveri has done.”
“I was wondering that myself. I hope she stays out of trouble while we’re gone.”
In many ways, the hike was easier than the journey to a town for a raid: they weren’t carrying much, there weren’t a couple of hundred other fighters turning the road into a morass of mud or a blizzard of dust, and even though they had a time limit overall, they could set their own pace.
Around noon, they decided that they were far enough away for a snack and a closer look at their packs.
Standard short-journey trail food: the usual rye bread, hard cheese, cold sausage, an illicit small flask of beer each, enough to feed them for the three days if they were sensible. There were other things, though.
“Wonderful, Kaveri’s no-bugs ointment,” Madoc said, setting aside a small bag sewn of leather worn thin, with a Forest glyph marked on it in something dark purple-blue. “We’re going to be glad we have it overnight. What else?”
“I have that one too,” Tyrel said. “Oh, good, bandages—I hope we won’t need ’em, but I’m glad we have ’em. This bag’s got a Forester protection glyph on one side.” He opened the drawstring top. “Powdered plant stuff. She can’t leave the fort, how does she get this stuff?”
“Trade with the farm and kitchen thralls, probably. Sounds like the stuff Mom used to mix with oil and paint along the windowsill and doorsill and hearth to keep spirits out. And oh look, a flask of oil.”
“Not sure how that’ll be useful, but who knows?” He pulled out the last item from the pack: a small disk of wood rubbed smooth with a complex unfamiliar glyph painted on it in black and red. A thin leather thong had been knotted around it to form a kind of net holding it securely, and the ends tied together to form a loop long enough to fit over his head easily. “What’s this?”
“I don’t know,” Madoc admitted. “But I have one too, and they’re pretty obviously to wear. She’s hardly about to give us something that’d be harmful, since if we both die, she’s not going to like the consequences. Forester rune-magic of some sort, I assume.” He shrugged, slipped the thong over his head, and tucked it under his dark russet jerkin. Tyrel echoed the shrug and the motion, and repacked everything.
“I don’t know why it was worth whatever risks she took to collect and make all this,” Madoc said, “but presumably she had a reason of some kind. Her no-bugs stuff works, and Mom certainly believed in Forester magic.”
They lingered there long enough for a short light meal before shouldering their packs again.
That afternoon, they reached the river, flowing with deceptive serenity between rocky banks. There was a ford here, partly natural but built up over the decades, and a narrow footbridge next to it, wooden planks and rails supported on wooden pilings driven into the riverbed. They paused for a long drink of the cool water and to empty and refresh their waterskins, since the rest of the trek was all uphill.
They caught their first sight of the hilltop ruins of Banvard by the fading light of dusk—one of the first trio of hill forts constructed, and the sole fort to fall to an enemy. Legend said magic had played a part in their defeat; never having seen truly convincing evidence of humans using active magic, only Forester magic that was usually so subtle as to be hard to prove, Tyrel remained sceptical.
“We could push on,” Tyrel mused, pausing to survey the distance. The track continued to wend its way upwards through sumac and lilac, knee-height brush he couldn’t identify and scattered trees. “But we’ll get there exhausted, and it’ll be well past full dark by then. I think we should find a place to sleep for the night while we can still see, finish the trip in the morning, maybe scout the area before dark, and go in rested and alert and ready for anything. It’ll take us less time to get home the next day than to get here, most of it’ll be downhill.”
Madoc nodded, not bothering to say anything, and they left the track in search of a welcoming campsite.
“That looks like some kind of evergreen,” Tyrel said finally, pointing to a cluster of tall, peaked shapes. “Probably some fairly clear space under it.”
It turned out not to be an easy spot to reach, although that was actually reassuring, since that would make it more defensible if that became necessary. Some of the brush here had small prickly thorns that couldn’t reach through their clothes but scored shallowly across exposed skin, and the viny stems tangled around their legs.
The open, needle-carpeted ground beneath the grove of evergreens was a welcome sight by the time they reached it.
“Much better,” Tyrel said, dropping his pack next to one trunk and dropping to sit next to it.
“Do you hear…” Madoc started, then broke off as a large, four-footed shape lunged out of the darkness, charging at Tyrel but skidding to a halt just short of touching him. It growled, a sound that bore only superficial resemblance to those of the fort’s hounds, a sound far deeper and more visceral. Long white teeth snapped savagely at the air only a couple of inches from Tyrel’s throat.
Tyrel froze, not even breathing. That was too big even to be a wolf, it could only be an amarog, but what was an amarog doing around here? This wasn’t their normal range, was it?
Madoc flung his pack at the amarog, thunking solidly into its side; it spun towards him, and he met it with his sica drawn.
Tyrel scrambled to his feet, drawing his katari. This wasn’t the kind of opponent they were familiar with, but surely they could kill one vicious animal.
He drew blood first, while the amarog was watching Madoc, and blinked. The blood that spilled out from the amarog’s hip wasn’t dark, but faintly luminous in the shadows, a pale yellow that reminded him of something. No time to think about it, as the amarog swung around and charged at him again. It slammed into him hard enough to throw him backwards and knock all the air out of his lungs, but reflex was enough for him to bring the katari around in a splatter of that strange blood. He looked straight up, into eyes that glowed with their own internal light, the same yellow as the blood, and suddenly he recognized it: it was exactly the colour of the largest moon Talir.
Why hadn’t it killed him yet? It had had two clear chances now, and not taken either of them.
Madoc wrapped his left arm around the amarog’s neck and threw his whole weight to the right, his sword coming around at the same time. It couldn’t work, the amarog massed at least as much as Madoc did, there was no way it could work.
Somehow, it worked. The amarog stumbled to the side, falling heavily half across Madoc in a tangle of flashing bronze and flashing teeth.
All mysteries aside, his brother was in danger. Tyrel climbed back to his feet, using a tree trunk as support briefly, and slashed with his longer katar at the amarog’s exposed shoulder, drawing blood yet again. Madoc used the heartbeat of distraction to drive the small leaf-shaped push-knife from his belt into the amarog’s throat and rip sideways.
The amarog yelped, a sound that ended in a gurgle, and went limp, Madoc pinned under it.
“It’s not breathing,” Madoc panted. “Give me a hand, here?”
Tyrel sheathed his katari and dragged the dead amarog off his brother, helping him to his feet with a hand. “Are you okay?”
“Nothing major. Bruises, mostly. It ripped my left arm. My own fault, I’m too used to having my claws on. What’s an amarog doing this far west?”
“I was wondering that, too.”
“C’mere, I don’t think I can get at this alone. Did you get hurt?”
“Nothing but bruises that are going to ache in the morning.” Tyrel unfastened the front of Madoc’s jerkin and helped him shrug out of it.
Madoc’s soft curse made him whip around to see what he was staring at.
The amarog’s body was dissolving into pale yellow light. Within a few more breaths, it was gone altogether.
“Okay, that’s seriously odd,” Madoc said.
“We can think about it later, let’s get you taken care of.” Tyrel worked loose the buttons down Madoc’s doublet; though the muted green suede looked grey in this light, he could see dark stains on one arm, and streaked across the area was fading yellow luminescence that must be the amarog’s blood. He rummaged in the nearest pack for the flask of beer, gripping Madoc’s arm just above the blood; jerking the flask open with his teeth, he splashed it on the wounds. Madoc grunted in pain, and Tyrel felt the muscle under his hand spasm.
“Light would be nice,” he muttered. “I can’t even check how bad it is.”
“I don’t think I’m going to die overnight, it isn’t that bad, and there’s nowhere around here we could safely make a fire. Give it another splash and then wrap it so it stops bleeding, and I’ll be fine. We can take a look at it in the morning.”
“You’re right, but I don’t like it. If it goes bad, we’re a long way from help.”
“Stop fretting. You’ve given me worse in workouts.”
Bites went bad more readily than weapon-wounds did. But Madoc knew that, so Tyrel didn’t bother reminding him. His brother had a point: options were currently limited.
Tyrel poured beer more slowly over the wounded area, gave Madoc the mostly empty flask to drink from, and fished out a roll of bandage to wrap Madoc’s upper arm snugly.
“Sit down, I’ll find the food.”
Madoc settled himself carefully with his back against a tree; Tyrel sat across from him, legs crossed, and brought out their simple meal.
“I’ve never seen anything like that,” Tyrel said finally, swallowing a bite of sausage. “Did you see the blood? And the eyes? And why didn’t it kill me when it had an opening?”
“I have no idea,” Madoc said. “It wasn’t any normal animal, that’s for sure. Never thought spirit beasts could be killed with plain bronze, though. I just hope the damned teeth weren’t poisoned.”
“Any strange feelings from it?”
“Nothing I wouldn’t expect. It actually doesn’t feel all that bad at all. I wasn’t serious. Would you quit, already?”
They finished eating in silence.
Afterwards, Tyrel used one foot to scrape a broad line in a circle around them, and knelt to draw the Forester protection glyph at three points in a triangle around the outside.
“Do you think that’ll do anything?” Madoc asked.
“It might, if there are other weird spirit animals around here. If not, well, nothing lost but a few minutes. Stay inside it if you can.”